Accounts of two recent attempts to bring books alive for children, to arouse their interest and encourage them to read.
The Children’s Book Week Train – running out of steam?
Moira Andrew is the headteacher of a school in Severn Beach, a village about ten miles from the centre of Bristol. The school seizes every opportunity to encourage children to be interested in books and become committed and enthusiastic readers. So when the news of the Book Week Train came round, Severn Beach was one of the first schools to book a place to be there to greet it when it pulled into Temple Meads station in Bristol.
Mary Hoffman’s enthusiastic account in the TES of the start of the Book Week Train’s nationwide tour on Saturday, 12th October whetted everyone’s appetite still more. At Euston, Milton Keynes and York the excitement had been high: authors everywhere, reading, talking, signing books, platforms buzzing with activity, champagne flowing and thousands of children enjoying themselves hugely and buying books. If this had been conceived primarily as a media event, it seemed the children weren’t going to lose out.
Friday, 18th October was the last but one day of the Book Train’s journey. After Plymouth and Exeter it was due to arrive in Bristol at 5.00 pm. After school Moira Andrew and her deputy with a coachload of children bubbling with anticipation set off for Temple Meads.
She describes for us what happened.
‘At the end of a long Friday, and a long week, my deputy and I took a party of children by coach to the bleak platform of Temple Meads station. We arrived in good time, full of anticipation.
Due to some technical hitch at the British Rail end, the train was forty-five minutes late. This was not the fault of the organisers, but no contingency plans had been made to cope with such a situation. Eventually we were all packed, tight as sardines, into the British Rail board room, all air and enthusiasm gradually ebbing, where Terry Jones did a marvellous job reading his story against the odds as more and more people were squeezed in. The British Rail board room will never be the same again – its sides may have been permanently stretched and it must have taken a ton of elbow grease to restore the long table to its original glory.
In the best union tradition of first in, last out, we found ourselves at the end of a long queue of book-enthusiasts when the train was finally announced. We had to battle our way forwards, losing half the children en route!
However, our real disappointment was still to come. We were shovelled on to the rear of the train into a narrow crowded bookshop. Before we had time to do as much as glance around, another hundred or so people were packed in and we were moved inexorably forward into a second bookshop – and on into a third, where the W H Smith tills gobbled up the children’s pocket money. There was by now a seething mass of people, many of whom could not get near enough to handle a book, let alone browse among them.
Tony Davies, my deputy, tumbled out of the coach with those children who had managed to buy a book and I was left inside trying frantically to identify those left aboard. Helping them to choose a book was out of the question.
In the half-dark we lined the children up and counted them. To our horror, one was missing, so it was back into the maelstrom of the bookshop, where I found her clutching a book, waiting to pay for it at the end of a long and tortuous queue.
All this time we had not yet sighted a writer (with the sole exception of the brave Terry Jones). `What about the authors?’ the children kept asking. Peering through the gloom, we spied them huddled behind a table on the cold station platform, the frail, elderly Rev. Awdry included!
By this time most of the children had felt hustled into buying the nearest book, and had no pocket money left for these authors’ books which were on sale on the platform.
Our coach had now been waiting for us for quite some time. We were cold, tired and very disappointed, so we spoke briefly to the shivering authors and made our way home.
From the preliminary blurb, we got the impression that the writers would be on board the train, either reading to groups of children or available to answer their questions – not on a draughty platform in the dark!
We are very interested in books and writers, in story-tellers and illustrators, and do all we can to encourage children to read for pleasure. This battle on board the Book Train did nothing towards this aim. It was simply a mammoth sales extravaganza on behalf of W H Smith, booksellers.
The cost of the coach and the teachers’ precious out-of-school time was entirely wasted but, more importantly, the Book Train did not live up to its promise as far as the children were concerned. Their disillusionment will do little towards bringing children closer to books and to their authors.’
Wessex Book Fair
Chris Powling spent a day on the Book Train and also appeared at the Wessex Book Fair. We asked him for his impressions.
‘I arrived at Hereford to join the train at about 9.30 in the morning. The train was already in the station and the organisers from the NBL with helpers from the local W H Smith were already setting out stalls and activities on the platform. There were games to play based on books and costume characters: Postman Pat, Fungus the Bogeyman and a talking robot which proved to be a great success with the kids. They arrived at about ten and for an hour and a half there was a lively buzz of activity with everyone enjoying themselves. “We authors” sat at tables on the platform with our books and talked happily to anyone who approached, answered questions and signed our autographs in books – our own and other people’s! – on bits of paper or anything else that was thrust at us.
It took a long time for the train to get to Cardiff and when we arrived (late) after lunch some children were already waiting. Some of us left the train and went to do a bit of “busking” for the queue while the organisers got the platform ready. Everyone was in good spirits and the hour and a half stop went off very well. There was lots going on and on the whole it seemed to generate a lot of excitement and pleasure.
We were due at Swansea at 5.30 but the train was late again. Hundreds of kids were waiting. I could only stay for half an hour (I had a train to catch!) but they seemed to be getting things organised when I left. I wish I could have stayed. I very much enjoyed my day with the train; in the places we stopped I felt that I had been part of something that was really making books come alive for children.
The Wessex Book Fair was fantastically well organised and a huge success. I visited the book fair in the Recreation Centre which was open to the general public and also did sessions with children which the library service had arranged. I’ve done a lot of author appearances in the past few years; this was definitely above par. The children had read my books (!) and had lots to say and ask about them. It was a most enjoyable thing to be involved in. Michael Lawrence is the sort of local bookseller every town should have. He’s worked hard at building up relationships with schools via school bookshops and he put an enormous amount into the book fair – not least a considerable sum of money from the business. The fact that he didn’t make a loss on the event is a tribute to his faith in the idea of taking books to people. The book fair had a tremendously exciting atmosphere; there was always something going on. I’m sure everyone who came must have gone away feeling positive about books!’
At the end of October books came to Winchester in a big way. For three days the Recreation Centre and St Bede’s School were packed with visitors to the Wessex Book Fair which was organised jointly by Hampshire County Library and Michael Lawrence of Michael Harrington Ltd booksellers. The fair ran on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and in all about 6,000 people came to taste its wares and to carry away their purchases in the shape of £10,000 worth of books. Two drama groups performed; Roald Dahl signed books and presented prizes; Val Biro brought Gumdrop; Fungus the Bogeyman put in appearances; Weston Woods and Reva Lee videos were shown continuously.
On the two school days the Hampshire Schools Library Service organised sessions in which groups of children visiting the fair were able to listen to authors talking. In all 2,000 children from 66 schools were involved and ten authors including Douglas Hill, Jan Mark, Hazel Townson, Dick King-Smith and Chris Powling came to meet their readers. (All classes booked for a session with an author had been reading and talking about the books in preparation.) Meticulous organisation by Anne Marley of the County Library Service ensured that everyone was in the right place at the right time and everyone went home smiling.
The organisers hope to repeat the event in two years’ time.